The Outlaw Album: Stories
- Daniel Woodrell
- Little, Brown
- 176 pp.
- Reviewed by Rimas Blekaitis
- November 2, 2011
The novelist’s first short story collection delivers darkly comic, rich and complex tales.
Reviewed by Rimas Blekaitis
Daniel Woodrell's eight novels have earned a devoted following, fine and accomplished writers among the most enthusiastic, for what he calls his “country noir” fiction. Esquire calls him “the most overlooked great novelist in America.”
“The Outlaw Album” is Woodrell’s first short story collection. In the opener, a character “splashes light on the rocks” as he walks up a creek in the darkness. That might be a fitting enough description for what Woodrell himself does with his expertly crafted sentences and penetrating observations, indeed splashing enough light to bring the faith to the uninitiated.
As one of the latter, I was first captured by what was darkly comic in these observations, such as this description of a meth head's girlfriend from “Twin Forks”: “She had muddied hands and unbridled hair and her face suggested she had yet to be pleasantly surprised by life.” The ending of that sentence does pleasantly surprise, and many more in this collection have such unexpected punch lines. When in the opening story, “The Echo of Neighborly Bones,” a frustrated man attempts to hide the body of the neighbor who has annoyed him once too often, he “piled heavy rocks on the man, trying to keep nature back from the flesh, the parts of nature that have teeth or beaks.” The rocks could not keep the man himself back from the body as he returned, again and again to it, because “[o]nce Boshell finally killed his neighbor, he couldn’t seem to quit killing him.” Violent, yes. Funny, even more so.
The stories move through the various shades of Woodrell’s noir-ish universe, from the comically perverse to the tragic, and the form seems to suit: here, the full range of tones can be explored more fully and in isolation than might be possible in a novel which would assume and impose its own overarching feel.
Some of the more comic stories, such as “Two Things,” a story of a struggling black family whose violent son has flowered as a poet in prison, read almost like extended jokes. In other stories Woodrell expertly hides his intentions, drawing the reader deeply into narratives that, in the end, tell stories much more rich and complex than the ones the reader may have thought they were reading.
In “Twin Forks,” a man has come to the Ozarks to buy a campground, “escaping fresh memories by chasing after old ones, looking for something that might spark his blood awake, make it hop lively in his veins again … he liked everything about the place — the steep hillsides of forest stripped for winter, the dour gray rock bluffs crouched near the river, the lonesome mumble of the passing wind, and these untamed people who shot at things to so plainly announce their sorrow.” The protagonist, it turns out, is one of “those things” being shot at but the author truncates the narrative about his dealing with the crazed meth heads who might try to kill him, inviting the reader to find the real and beautifully written story in the forces keeping this man in harm’s way.
The somber “Black Step” follows a serviceman back from service in the desert through several days as he waits for orders to return to action. There is this wonderful observation of his mother, evidently mortally ill with cancer: “Her sleep is a busy place and she speaks mushed words into the sheets, her legs walk to yesterday and back across the mattress, her eyelids totter as they rush about in darkness, wanting to see everything they’ve ever seen again.” The man must retrieve the decaying carcass of a cow hung up in a cliff-side tree and remembers his father who shot himself to death on the step now painted black: “Dad Dad, my sorrowful Dad, was a man given to long blue spells pierced by moments of excited yearning — a handsome doomed man I like more and more as the days roll past and I imagine him with dark curls and thin whiskers and how we resemble.” This is one of the few stories that make it past seven pages, and what at first seems to be an almost rambling, episodic narrative takes shape as something in which each word, gesture and image begin to reveal what is at its heart, the question of how closely the protagonist will come to resemble his father.
This is a fine collection worthy of the author’s reputation and as Woodrell sets up and then confounds expectations in each story, he reveals layers of meaning and new questions about the characters and their actions. Highly recommended.
Rimas Blekaitis lives, writes and reads in Washington, D.C. He is in the Vermont College of Fine Arts creative writing M.F.A program.